February 26, 2007

Name: CAPT Doug Traversa
Posting date: 2/26/07
Stationed in: Kabul, Afghanistan
Hometown: Tullahoma, TN
Milblog url:

Today Hamid (my interpreter) came with me to lunch, and I stopped by the hut to drop off my armor and rifle.

"Hey, you've never seen my blog, have you?  Come in and I'll show it to you."

I pulled up my front page, and showed him the January archives so he could see how much I am writing. As we walked to chow, he said, "You really do write a lot. What do you say?"

"I write about anything that happens to me. People love to read about our friendship, because it gives them hope that we can have peace in the world, even if we come from different worlds. For instance, I wrote about our discussion the other day concerning friendship."

He laughed. "I bet you write about how much I eat."

Now I laughed. "Ohhhh, Yeeesss," I said dragging out each word. "You can bet I wrote about that. You are famous around the world for your massive appetite. I told people how you eat four plates of food and store it like a camel."

At this point we are both laughing very loud. We do that often. Hamid loves to laugh, and I love an audience, so we laugh a great deal indeed.

"But that's not true!" he complained, still laughing.

"Well, they don't really think you are a camel."  But as for the four plates of food, it has been known to happen. "You can bet if we've had a good talk, I've written about it."

Once we sat down to eat, I waited for the conversation to take one of the unexpected twists I've come to expect (can you really expect an unexpected twist?). Interestingly enough, it was The Stars and Stripes that provided us some great stuff. I usually have a copy open and glance through it while we eat. The actual conversations start after we stuff our faces.

I saw a photo of the world's smallest prematurely born baby that survived. She was 10 ounces when born. I showed the picture to Hamid, and we discussed just how young (22 weeks) and tiny the baby was. I ended up discussing the miracles of modern medicine that allowed us to save such a tiny baby, and somehow we got to artificial insemination. Hamid was amazed that such a thing was possible. He had never heard of it, and I would soon learn how important this option would be in Afghanistan.

To Hamid, you get married in order to have children. In fact, he says that if a married couple does not have children, it is a great shame to them, and they withdraw from society. The man is assumed to be impotent, and is mocked and called a woman or a shemale. This disgrace is so onerous, Hamid says that if it is the woman who can't conceive, the man will usually marry a second wife so he can have children.

"Well, in America, we can only have one wife. Suppose I had gotten married, and my wife could not have children. What should I do?"

Hamid answered easily and quickly. "You should divorce her and marry someone else. What is a marriage without children?"

The cultural gulf exploded in my face. The utter casualness with which he said this was as shocking as when Wali told me gays and apostates should be executed.

"I married my wife because I love her. Why in the world would I leave her if she couldn't have children?  I want to be with her."

Hamid seemed as baffled as I was.  "But a marriage is nothing without children."

"Why?" I demanded.

"Who will take care of you when you are older? Who will pray for you when you die?" he explained.

"That sounds incredibly selfish. You only want kids to take care of you when you are old?" I countered.

"So when you get old, you don't want your children to take care of you?" he asked.

"Of course I would like them to, but that's not why I had children. I wanted children to share the love and joy of raising a family. As I told you, my family means everything to me. I loved having children, but I did not have them so I could have little workers to take care of me all the time."

Hamid and I paused; no doubt my thoughts were as alien to him as his were to me.

"Let me tell you about my aunt," he began. "When she got married, she could not have children. At first her husband loved her and treated her nicely. But as time went on, and she never had children, he started getting angry with her. Whenever people with children came over to visit, he would yell at her after they left. He blamed her, and even told her he would never have married her if he had known she could not bear children.

However, after 12 years of this, she was able to get some medical treatment, and was finally able to have a child. Once this happened, he started treating her nicely again and loving her."

I was saddened, but not surprised. "I find this hard to understand. How can men be so cruel? Why would they blame a woman for a medical problem that isn't her fault?"

Hamid shrugged. "As I said, a marriage without children is nothing. Why even get married?"

I had had enough. Cultural tolerance only goes so far. I got as stern as I've ever gotten with Hamid. My wife can tell you about the look. It melts steel, and has made teachers and ROTC cadets cry. Really.

"I love my wife. She is the most important thing in the world to me. Why in the world would I want to hurt her, divorce her, or shame her if she couldn't have children? That is the most stupid thing I have ever heard. I would never want anything to do with a religion that taught such a thing. It is absolutely hateful and pure evil!" I have no doubt that Hamid felt like a little bunny looking into the barrel of a gun held by a very angry hunter.

"NO, NO, NO," he waved his hands. "It is not Islam, it is Afghanistan that teaches this.  It is our country."

I turned off my glare, sat back in my chair, and pulled my hair back with my hands as I tend to do when faced with a dilemma. "We really do come from different worlds. I can't understand why you treat women so badly. To me, marriage is a partnership and a friendship. I cannot imagine deliberately hurting my wife, as your men do."

"It is our culture."

"Well, I can't change your culture, but I hope what I say can change you. I am concerned about you. I don't want you to be like that. When you get married, I hope you will treat your wife better than that."

"I actually believe as you do. But I was telling you how most men think here." Hamid looked sad. "In fact, I have bad news to tell you. You know the girl I wanted to marry, the one my mother was going to look into in the spring?"

"Yes, of course." I waited for the bad news. It was written clearly on his face.

"Her father has a business in Russia. I found out last night that he is taking his family to live there. I will never see her again."

Sometimes I want to cry. In fact, as I write this, I do.


It really is a different culture. I met several Afghans years ago when they first came here during the Russian invasion. I've seen them go through a lot of changes, and I learned a lot too. They really are pretty good people. We just have to accept that people have different ways. The next generations always bring changes.

Wake-up, Captain.

It wasn't so long ago, in American culture, that one's family was the ONLY social safety network of support for the elderly.

We have passed that off to society to bear as a burden, and its become a damn costly one.

You're looking at the past..and at the future, boyo. In due time, only the poorest of the elderly will be supported. We don't have the labor and tax infrastructure to support them as we do now..

Especially since these same elderly have been encouraged to hand off personal responsibility for their health. Percentage of the US population > 65-yrs old, on public health benefits:


You think we can sustain this, as health care costs rise and the population demographics shift (number of retirees to rise rapidly in the next decade)??

No sir! Not an icecube chance in hell of that.


Passerby -

I really don't know what you want me to wake up to. I wasn't talking about our social welfare system. Having children to be your own welfare system is wrong. Hating your wife because she can't bear children is wrong.

Passerby, this forum isn't "blowback", so if you have nothing worthwhile to add, why don't you just pass on by? You're embarrassing yourself.

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." Turns out a foreign country may be the past as well - what is fascinating in your story is that it explains aspects of our own history, why women used to be treated in certain ways, why reproduction is such a battleground. And the tragedy of losing someone you love to another country just because her father leaves (when we would all say a woman can stay and marry if she likes) has echoes of so many broken lives for our grandparents and their grandparents. Thanks Capt. your insights are really interesting.


I get what you're saying, but I don't agree with it at all. Just because someone has children is no guarantee that the children will take care of their parents. Do you think all the elderly in US nursing homes are childless? Absolutely not. I see it all the time and their families rarely visit them b/c they are "too busy".

Capt Traversa,

I love reading what you have to say. I wish you the best.
I'm sorry that Hamid's love interest has to move so far away. That's really too bad.
Thanks for your post. Stay safe!

What a sad story for Hamid! Isn't his job as an interpeter good enough so the family would let the girl stay? Or maybe she doesn't want to stay...I'm glad he was clear that abuse was a social custom and not mandated by Islam. If he is a good man and treats his wife like a human being, he stands a better chance of happiness than most. And if he is a good man, others will want to help him when he is old. Children can die in war or move to a place with jobs, or be unreliable. He must realize that the old standard of "normal" is changing. I am also worried that Hamid could be in danger by having his social views outed. We are not going to be in Afghanistan forever, and people have been punished for less. It is not unlikely that someone is keeping score. I understand there are efforts made to keep these guys low profile, but still...Good luck to you both! Btw, a good read: "The Children Who Sleep By the River." It's a few years old now (pre-AIDS) but a lucid description of the situation of third world women.

Tara - at least you understood the problem. We don't have enough latent wealth to hand off family responsibility to care for our elderly, whether they are our parents or not. The only reason you see elderly in nursing homes who are ignored by their children/family is precisely the point. When we didn't have an alternative, they had to be cared for by family.

And its true, women were undervalued in the past when they didn't bear children. As the population density rises, so does infertility. It stands at 10% presently in the US.

We do have a problem, don't we? Who will care for us in our old age, if we don't have children, and our health care system hasn't enough fiscal resource to house us in community homes? Its a thorny problem.

We in the US are also not quite past social pressure to bear children. Childless women are still judged as 'cold' and 'self-serving', if they are career-oriented, whether or not their childless state is of their own choosing.

We are not nearly as 'civilized' as we think.


Thanks for the insight into the Afghan culture. Be careful.

Thanks for sharing this view of another culture, as well as your view of our culture.

As someone who's been happily married for 25 years but opted not to have children, I think many Americans also believe that a couple isn't truly married unless they have children. I've heard that plenty of times where I am (northern New England). Obviously I married for love, not to create children to take care of me in my old age, so I couldn't stop loving my wife if we couldn't have children together. I think that custom comes from treating women as possessions (e.g. "the rule of thumb"), and is only dying out slowly.

But I'd never go so far as what Passerby said in his second reply. I don't see "cold" and "self-serving" for a career-woman as much as "oh the poor dear doesn't know what she's missing!" - more pity than scorn.

I'd also suggest that Hamid might follow that custom more than he told you, just going along to get along. You might have been sadder about his fiance leaving than he was. It's tough to turn your back on your culture's beliefs!

Best of luck

"Of course I would like them to, but that's not why I had children. I wanted children to share the love and joy of raising a family."

And I suppose you think Afghans don't love their children too? It's strange that you can't see you're both saying the same thing: children greatly enrich a marriage. And you may want to look up the statistics of divorce rates on American couples who don't have children, or who lose their child to premature death. It would show you that all humans are the same, with cultural differences being merely superficial. Childless American couples are more likely to divorce than those with children. Afghans are just more honest than Americans about expressing the importance of children as a binding force.

Thank you Captain, for your service, for sharing your life with Hamid, learning from him, sharing all of it with us. Please tell Hamid that I thank him, very much, for helping you to help him.

As is true with most general rules, everyone likely knows about an exception to some degree.

Hopefully, Hamid will come to understand that people have no control over their natural state of fertility, everyone just assumes they can procreate. As far as he knows, he's potent, but what if he's not? If a woman can be barren, he is just as vulnerable to being afflicted, if you will. Why bring on to yourself the additional sorrow of blaming or being blamed? I know a lovely couple, who have been married nearly 50 years. They don't have children. I don't know if they decided to not have children or if it simply wasn't in their destiny. The husband was fortunate enough to have a knack for business and made a lot of money. He retired early and they live a life of travel and kind acts of volunteerism. But their's is a rare case. And because of their increasingly frail health, they could easily spend the rest of their money on insurance and medical bills. Or, they could easily outlive their savings, for they so far can afford to pay for excellent care and live well, though not at all extravagantly. They are an example of people who didn't bear children with the ancient agenda of eventually being cared for by them. They are doing everything right, by our standards in our country, where self-sufficiency, from adulthood to death is what our society expects. If you did not save enough, try though you may have to the best of anyone's ability, you can expect to be looked down on, kicked to the curb, abandoned to strangers, and you will live old age in poverty. Especially if you don't have children.

My grandmother lived to 93. She died destitute, in a for-profit, poorly run nursing home, paid for by I don't know how. She was widowed in her 50's and lived on her dead husband's social security until it ran out, and then I believe, she lived on welfare in some form or another. I didn't pry but I always wondered. And even though she had children, she was neglected a lot in her last two decades. I grew close to her and made a point of visiting her often, when I still lived near her. But I couldn't save her from her lonely last years.

Being cared for in your elder years is very much a crap shoot in America. I shudder to think what it would be like in Afghanistan.

So, please, Hamid, be gentle and kind to your wife, be compassionate.

Good Captain, again, thank you, for your sacrifice and service, and thank you to your wife and family for theirs. I am trying to deserve it, but I never really will. I pray that God grace you with all the blessings and bounty that you truly deserve.

Oh, sorry, I forgot to add: women who don't have children aren't seen as cold and self-serving by most people, as far as I can determine here in America. Maybe Passerby does, but not anyone I know. It's been more the case that they are seen as being unlucky, for they medically can't, or careful, making sure not to get accidentally pregnant, or perhaps they choose not to quite yet or not at all. But in America we tend to accept that if it is by choice (I don't mean abortion), then that is their decision. Hopefully it is not for sad reasons they don't have children. Sometimes people choose not to have children because they're afraid they would be terrible parents... they didn't want to pass along... the mistakes.

So sometimes, people make the right decision, knowing it might cost them dearly later.

Not having children in America is not as dodgy a prospect as it is in other countries, but it's no skate either. But no matter what country you live in, no one should be condemned, blamed or belittled for not being able to bear children, that simply doesn't make sense, never mind not being loving.

Some children and grandchildren neglect their elderly out of selfishness, but very often these days it's due to impracticality. I visited both of my grandmothers in their elder years a few time, but one was in MN, the other in western PA, and I lived in Seattle and CT at those times - and my folks live in Chicago. What were we to do? Give up our good jobs to move to a destitute ex-coal mining town in western PA that my grandmother refused to leave? Drain my coffers flying back and forth from Seattle to Minneapolis? That's not realistic unless you're very, very rich. The nature of our society is that you have to go where the jobs are, and if folks want to stay where the jobs WERE when they retired, that doesn't leave you with many options.

To some degree, planning on relying on your children is a bit of a fool's game - what would you do if they are all killed by disease, accidents, or war before you grow old, much less if they decided to continue to live near you? The only insurance then is having lots of them, but it is far too expensive to have a huge brood in this day and age.

There is no good answer for us, at the moment - we're going to have to teach people to save for the future AND find a way to fund the shortfalls. The old way can still work in an Afghanistan where people have limited mobility, but that too will have to change if they begin to modernize.

Thanks for the great information and view of another culture. Websites, like yours, are hard to find.
Be careful around the Afghan culture.

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